« Return to this article

Know the West

What is California’s ‘War on Breakfast’ really about?

Years after animal cruelty legislation passes, the pork industry tries one last time to stop it.


In early January, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley took to his home state’s flagship newspaper, the Des Moines Register, to rail against California’s “war on breakfast.” The strongest animal welfare law in the nation had just gone into effect, and, according to Grassley, it threatened Iowa’s behemoth pork industry.

California’s Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act, or Proposition 12, mandates that factory farms make more physical space for some animals to reposition their limbs and move around. If factory farms across the country don’t comply, they’ll be barred from selling to the Golden State’s coveted consumers, who make up a whopping 15% of the United States pork market.

In 2018, the law passed with 63% of Californian voters supporting it. But in the years following, the powerful pork industry waged a protracted legal campaign to overturn it, filing three lawsuits alleging that it posed a serious threat to their business model. In late January, industry groups seized on a Sacramento Superior Court ruling to renew call for Supreme Court intervention. The court had granted grocery retailers a six-month extension to iron out the specifics, but pork producers and the meat lobby called the ruling a delay on all regulation. Now, a final attempt to overturn the law is moving toward a hearing before the Supreme Court, where it awaits a mid-February review. 

“Pork producers decided not to comply,” said Chris Green, the executive director of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Program. “Instead, they pinned everything on litigation. And now that their litigation failed multiple times, they’re in this panic.”

The law requires 24 feet of floor space for each sow and her piglets.

California’s new law means that any pork companies that want to sell pork in California now have to give breeding mother pigs and their bacon-destined piglets enough space to stand up, turn around and stretch their limbs without touching another animal or the sides of an enclosure. To standardize the regulation for farmers, the law requires 24 feet of floor space for each sow and her piglets, a number based on welfare standards set by farm animal organizations.

For pork producers looking to sell to California’s large market, the requirement effectively bans a common practice: keeping pregnant mothers in gestation crates, which are metal cages designed to confine a sow while she is forcibly artificially inseminated through multiple pregnancies. The cages are unsparing. Josh Balk, the vice president of Animal Welfare at the Humane Society who led the campaign to pass the law, says it is the equivalent to spending your life in a coffin. “Can you imagine the pain, suffering and fear when you can’t turn around for four years? Pigs are social, smart creatures. If you did this to a dog, you’d be arrested in every state.”

Out of six million in the country, roughly a million breeding sows will be affected by the progressive Western state’s new regulations. But few of those pigs will actually be in California; the overwhelming majority of pork farming and production is concentrated in the Midwest and the South.

In a statement, Jen Sorenson, president of the National Pork Producing Council, argued that “one state imposing regulations” on another would “stifle interstate and international commerce,” a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

To sell in California, farmers will need to retrofit existing pig housing, keep fewer hogs, or build out more space for the animals, which will cost money. Critics also warn that this will increase costs for consumers, amplifying fear over possible bacon shortages in California. “Small family farms well beyond California’s borders will be hit hardest as they are forced to make expensive and unnecessary changes to their operations,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duval, arguing that it would also lead to more consolidation and higher prices at the grocery store.

The arguments direct attention away from the existing harms of the already highly consolidated pork industry, where a few vertically integrated firms dominate. “This is entirely about the largest of operators,” says Loka Ashwood, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky who studies agribusiness. Animals, small farmers and ecosystems all pay the price for a business model that maximizes efficiency by squeezing pigs into tightly confined spaces.

“This is entirely about the largest of operators.”

According to one report, the top 10 hog companies own nearly half of the country’s sows, with the top two firms owning 20%. Animal welfare regulations will force some contracts to change, but that is something that is completely within the power of those large companies, which, Ashwood said, saw record profits during the pandemic. Small-scale producers, meanwhile, have been forced “to get big or get out” and raise hogs under rigid and low-paying contracts with multinational corporations like Tyson and Smithfield, Ashwood said.

“It’s so minuscule, to a degree, what Proposition 12 is asking for,” Ashwood said. “It shows how consolidated and vulnerable our food system is. If giving animals a few more square feet of room is going to topple the system, we probably need a new system.”

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him a [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.